Blonde Beauties and Black Booties: Racial Hierarchies in Brazil

Model scouts strategically target towns in Southern Brazil to “find the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in,” explains Alexei Barrionuevo in a recent New York Times article, “Off Runway, Brazilian Beauty Goes Beyond Blonde. The fact that a European standard of beauty still dominates the modeling industry should come as no surprise. But why go to Brazil in search of models with European features instead of going directly to Europe? This racial preference is deeply connected to Brazil’s complex history of race relations.

In the early 20th century, Brazil embarked on a national project of embranquecimento–whitening. Influenced by European scientific racism, state officials wanted to “breed the [black] blood out” of the national population. To do so, they encouraged Europeans to settle and hopefully, intermarry with the descendants of enslaved Africans. Despite this attempt to “dilute” the black population, many have upheld Brazil as a “racial democracy” where harmonious race relations and intermixing reined supreme, and where racism is not an issue.

Ironically, while scouts search Southern Brazil for women of European descent to fit into their standard of beauty, European and North American men travel to the northeast of Brazil seeking sex with women of African descent who they imagine as hypersexual.

Walk to any newsstand in Salvador da Bahia and you will find dozens of postcards that use images of black women scantily clad in bikinis to “sell” the area to the rest of the world. This is nothing new. The figure of the mulata, or mixed-race woman of African descent, has long been represented in Brazilian popular culture as the epitome of sexiness. Exported abroad as early as the 1970s in Oswaldo Sargentelli’s world tour of samba shows featuring mulata women, now the term has become synonymous with “prostitute” for many European men who travel to Brazil for sex.

So, while women of African descent in Brazil may be considered “hot” or “sexy,” they are not considered “beautiful” enough to be models. In fact, as Barrionuevo states, “more than 70 percent” of Brazil’s models are from the “three southern states” that have had the heaviest influx of European immigration.

Barrionuevo may be critiquing this trend, but his solution hardly helps: He holds up Juliana Pães and Camila Pitanga as “darker-skinned actresses” who are “among Brazil’s sexiest” and should, presumably, catch the eye of international model scouts. Paes and Pitanga, however, are extremely fair-skinned, though not Euro-Brazilian like the models from the South who typically gain worldwide fame. And this distinction between beauty and sexiness, based on racial classification, is reminiscent of colonial legacies of white womanhood as the embodiment of purity and respectability, while black women were depicted as Mammies, Jezebels, or Sapphires.

Above: Brazilian models on a catwalk, from Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic


  1. This is an enlightening piece. Thanks for posting!

  2. As The United States’ white population quickly becomes the minority in the next fifty years, I see it heading this way, too—making a shift in emphasis from racism to tonism. Light-skinned or more European-looking features will be more desirable even though very few people will be technically still “white” (as we now know it anyway… the definition of “white” is fluid, as the past century of immigration has shown us—special shout-out to the Jewish and Irish folks!).

    • Nicola Downes says:

      In response to the above comment, White people are and always have been the global ethnic minority. So becoming a minority in North America isn’t that surprising. The term Black in Western societies is used to refer to anyone who has a drop of Black blood in them, the term White is referred to in less fluid terms as it has cultural connotations to do with “purity”. It is interesting that despite the fact that White Jews in Europe were subjected to the holocaust for “not being White”, that they still identify themselves as White. Also, the fact that Irish people suffered at the hands of White Anglo-Saxon protestants, has not conjured up a cultural need among, especially Irish Catholics, to use the term “White” more loosely, I find very interesting.

  3. How sad that people in the fashion industry in Brazil (and in much of the rest of the world) are so narrow-minded and lemming-like. There needs to be much more diversity amongst the models and modeling agencies designers use. Admiring the female form is fine but the industry could do without the stereotypes and bias your article points out.

  4. Those dang thongs are so uncomfortable. I cant even imagine wearing them long enough to look good in them. I for one dont want the female mystique to be so blatantly exposed. I dont find the thong look any sexier than those muscle men who reek of oil and too many hours in the gym.

  5. No matter what the issue is at hand…its a shame that racism is alive and thriving…Peace!

  6. Nicola Downes says:

    The modelling industry in Brazil and in fact all of the world, needs to be shamed into submission. Historically we Black people have accomplished a huge amount through campaigning and resistance, which has resulted in other groups, like Women’s liberation Groups and humanitarian groups borrowing resistance techniques from us and succeeding! People of colour need to remember to celebrate ourselves even if White global hegemony does not. The world first hated rap, now it can’t get enough of it, there are still prejudice issues to do with being Black, which have a historical origin. But we should never forget the gains, White women are not going to beauty salons to look pale, they want brown skin admittedly not to look Black but you get my point? Which previously conquered nation put one of their own as leader of the most powerful country in the world within less than a couple of hundred years of being freed? Erh, we did. Hmm beat that!


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Girls Inc of NYC and Ms. Magazine, Ms. Magazine. Ms. Magazine said: Bred to be bootiful […]

  2. […] Blonde Beauties and Black Booties: Racial Hierarchies in Brazil : Ms Magazine Blog Ironically, while scouts search Southern Brazil for women of European descent to fit into their standard of beauty, European and North American men travel to the northeast of Brazil seeking sex with women of African descent who they imagine as hypersexual. (tags: fashion body.politics gender race) […]

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